Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️.5 (reviewed 3 February)
Perfect casting, direction and stagecraft compensates the thrilling but flawed script of An Inspector Calls. J.B. Priestley’s classic tale of rich people being interrogated for their snootiness and contemptible behaviour sits in the genre of other great social-class stories told by Dickens, Hugo et al. Each sordid detail of selfishness, greed, jealously, lust and corruption gradually unravels the impenetrable image of an upper class and respectable family, turning them into fodder for a voyeuristic discovery of their shame, much like the soap opera that has surrounded the royal family. However, while criticism of privilege has always been a topical theme to explore, the play at times runs out of things to say, and becomes a bit too self-aware of its own cleverness and preachiness. The plot, starting off well, quickly descends into obvious foreshadowing, prompting the audience to whisper amongst themselves throughout the play about what will be revealed next. The irritating chit chat, compounded by a rather late start on Saturday night (due to an event next door that caused a massive traffic jam, and therefore many people to miss the show), created a restive atmosphere instead of a wholly engaging experience. Which is a shame, because there is a lot to appreciate about this hauntingly beautiful and exquisite production.
The play is set at the Birlings’ Mansion House in 1912, a mere few days before the Titanic sinks and a few years before WW1 breaks out. These are referenced by Arthur Birling as things “that will never happen”, a kind of foreshadowing about the uncertainty that is about to come and shake the foundation of their perfectly comfortable world. The Birling family and their guest are enjoying an elaborate dinner, celebrating an engagement, when they are visited unexpectedly by a Police Inspector.
The mysterious Inspector Goole (Thomas Southwell) is undoubtedly the most engaging character in the play, interrogating his suspects with an unorthodox method of questioning. The performance is methodical and riveting, with a mere flicker of an accusing eye just as effective in disarming an opponent as an assertive retort. Equally good is Arthur Birling, (Steve Rowe) patriarch of the Birling family, pompously parading his pride, privilege and impending knighthood, only to splutter in revulsion and disgust when his inexcusable actions and those of his family are revealed. The bleeding hearts of his reckless and despicable adult children (Sheila Birling played by Caitlin Clancy and Eric Birling played by Mitchel Doran) and his equally despicable soon to be son-in-law (Gerald Croft played by Jem Rowe) adds to the mix. His cold, aloof wife Sybil Birling (Leigh Scanlon) runs a women’s charity with heartless discretion, turning away desperate women who are not ‘morally worthy’ by her standards, no matter what their circumstances are.
With such toxic behaviour out in the open, Priestley gives little reason to have any emotional investment in these characters, who screech and squabble for almost two hours about who’s responsible for triggering the suicide of a young female worker dismissed from Arthur Birling’s factory. She is referred to by many names and identities throughout the play, including the ingénue vernacular as ‘the girl’.
Director David Went does an excellent job with material that is mostly static; surprisingly, the one-setting-scene around the cumbersome dinner table isn’t an issue at all. There is fluidity and flair in the direction. There is definitely the thrill of suspense. A very promising set-up. It’s just a pity there’s so little charm to the characters. Which is perhaps the whole point of the play (there is no redemption for the wicked), but the narrative then pivots into whether the Inspector is even real / legitimate. The ending has an element of the supernatural, perhaps inspired by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or the fashion to introduce red herrings in a detective story. The sound design, costuming and stagecraft are all on point and exquisite in supporting this dual construct (the ghostly special effects are very cool).
Adding to the excellent cast are three street folk (played by Babs Went, Lauren Asten-Smith and Felicity Palmer) who hover outside the Birling mansion house for the duration of the play without any speaking lines, giving literal expression to the phrase ‘if these walls had ears’. Their presence intensifies the discomfort of the accused, that they are being watched, and heard, and that one cannot simply ignore the common people on the street, without some kind of moral consequence.
An Inspector Calls is playing at The Pavilion Theatre til 24 February. For tickets and showtimes, go to https://paviliontheatre.org.au/aninspectorcalls/
Images: Chris Lundie